Boston’s best game still not enough to beat Thunder

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The good news: The return of Kendrick Perkins and the challenge to match up to one of NBA’s elite teams in the Oklahoma City Thunder got the Celtics to play their best game of the season.

The bad news: Oklahoma City 97, Boston 88.

Maybe the highlight for Boston fans was the video tribute to Perkins at the first time out, which was followed by a standing ovation. They really could have used a little of his fire tonight.

Boston is now 4-8 with five straight losses, the first time that has happened in the “big three” era. This season in Boston is starting to feel like so many of the Celtics games in it — they have dug themselves a hole with a slow start and now have to fight their way out of it just to make the playoffs.

It was far from perfect, but it was the best game Boston had played in total this season. Rajon Rondo nearly had a triple-double (12 points, 9 assists, 9 rebounds) and Mickael Pietrus was a gunner off the bench with 14. The Celtics defense looked the best it had this year.

But this much was clear — Oklahoma City was so much more athletic, more physical so much younger and more energetic. Rondo is the best player on the Celtics and yet at several times and when the game mattered most he could not stop Russell Westbrook. Put simply, the Thunder were better.

This game felt like so many Celtics game this year — not all of Boston’s big three seemed to click (Paul Pierce was on an finished with 24 but Ray Allen seemed to disappear) and Boston struggled at the start. Then the bench came in and couldn’t keep up the scoring pace (Marquis Daniels was the first bench player to score, more than three minutes into the second quarter) and soon it was a double-digit hole for Boston to fight back from.

They did. Pierce led a charge at the end of the first half to keep it close at the break. In the third quarter Doc Rivers experimented with a small lineup (Brandon Bass at center) and that got some fast break points. As the game wore on, Boston’s defense stiffened and they cut the lead to 78-76 with 5:10 left. Boston was forcing the Thunder to shoot jumpers.

The problem is, Kevin Durant can still knock them down. Durant had 28, and when Boston closed out on his jumpers he drove and had a dunk and created other good looks. Then in the role of third scorer usually played by James Harden, defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha dropped 19.

But in the end it was Westbrook and friends. The Thunder had been 3-of-15 from three on the night but with the game close late they hit four straight including a couple of daggers from Westbrook, who had 26 points and broke out a new three-point celebration (holstering his gun then… doing something with his hands, I’m not sure what exactly, but it was intentional).

For Oklahoma City, this is what is expected now, their stars stepping up in the clutch to win tough games on the road.

Boston tried to rise up to meet that challenge. They came close but not close enough. It’s a long season, one where it is far too early to write off these Celtics. But until they can get the big three all going at the same time and some kind of bench help, a lot of nights are going to look like this one.

Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan staying in 2017 NBA draft

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Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan declared for the 2016 NBA draft, struggled at the combine, withdrew, got into great shape, had an All-American sophomore season, declared for the 2017 draft.

This time, he’s not turning back.

Swanigan:

Swanigan is a borderline first-round pick. He has a couple NBA-ready skills the good teams that typically pick late in the first round might covet, but thanks to trades, teams that didn’t win a playoff game this year hold most late first-round picks. They might pick someone with more upside than Swanigan.

Swanigan is a tenacious rebounder, particularly defensively. He has excellent fundamentals, size (6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan) and ability to read the ball, and he crashes through contact to hunt boards.

He’s also a quality post-up player who can finish with either hand and has the passing ability to make that play work.

But Swanigan is slow. NBA teams have become increasingly adept at running plodders like him off the court by dragging them into pick-and-rolls. Even when on the court, he hasn’t protected the rim at satisfactory levels.

Swanigan has overcome his athletic limitations as a rebounder. He hasn’t done so in other facets of defense.

He’s hardly a dinosaur offensively. He made 45% of his 3-pointers last season, and though I’m not confident that will translate to NBA 3-point range (give the small sample and his form), he should be at least a midrange threat.

Swanigan is also just 20, young for a sophomore. He can improve.

But it’s just hard to look past his defensive limitations.

Hawks hire Travis Schlenk as general manager

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The Hawks picked Warriors assistant general manager Travis Schlenk as their next general manager. All that was left was negotiating terms.

That’s done.

Hawks:

The Atlanta Hawks today announced the hiring of Travis Schlenk as General Manager and Head of Basketball Operations. He will start leading Hawks basketball operations on June 1.

Schlenk worked his way up the latter and helped the Warriors become the envy of every other NBA team. He deserves this opportunity.

But the job won’t be easy.

The Hawks are stuck between two directions. On one side, they have veterans Paul Millsap (a 32-year-old pending unrestricted free agent whom the owner has basically promised a huge contract) and Dwight Howard (who sounds unhappy). On the other side, they have a youth movement featuring Dennis Schroder and Taurean Prince. Tim Hardaway Jr., who bridges the age groups, is about to enter a potentially tricky restricted free agency.

Keeping the core together offers the upside of a playoff-series victory or two annually, modest outcomes for the cost. But a fragile Atlanta fan base might not tolerate a rebuild.

Schlenk works for owner Tony Ressler, and Ressler sounds committed to maintaining the status quo by keeping Millsap. It’s now Schlenk’s job to execute that vision or convince his boss to approve a different direction.

Potential none-and-done first-rounder Hamidou Diallo returning to Kentucky

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The more I’ve looked into the 2017 NBA draft, the less impressed I’ve become. There are a few bright spots in the first round relative to an average draft – No. 2, 5ish-10ish, 17ish-22ish – but I’m not convinced this is the generationally strong draft it has been touted as.

In the absence of prospects who offer secure promise, why not turn to upside? Hamidou Diallo offered plenty and was increasingly viewed as a first-rounder.

Yet, he’ll return to Kentucky for his freshman season.

Diallo:

A highly ranked recruit, Diallo began last school year at a prep school then enrolled at Kentucky for the spring semester. He practiced with the Wildcats, but never played.

Then, he went to the combine and posted excellent measurables: 6-foot-5, 6-foot-11 wingspan, 44.5-inch vertical and strong agility and sprint scores. Just 18, Diallo might have been the second-youngest player drafted this year (behind only Ike Anigbogu).

It wouldn’t have taken long – likely somewhere in the middle of the first round – for a team to bite on all that potential.

Instead, Diallo returns to Kentucky and must now show his ability to actually produce in basketball games. If he does, there’s no limit on how high he goes in the 2018 NBA draft. If he doesn’t, he’ll regret missing the opportunity to get drafted before his game got picked apart.

Report: Bulls expect Dwyane Wade to opt in

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Dwyane Wade said he wants to see the Bulls’ plan for Jimmy Butler and the rest of the roster before deciding on a $23.8 million player option for next season.

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

I can tell you is most everyone associated with the Bulls believes Wade will pick up the option and remain in Chicago for a second season. More surprising things have happened in league history, though. So stay tuned.

This could be a tell that Wade will opt in. The Bulls could obviously be positioned to base their prediction on inside information into Wade’s thinking.

This could a tell the Bulls won’t trade Butler. If they know they’ll keep Butler, they can extrapolate what that’d mean for Wade.

Or the Bulls, like so many of us, just assume a 35-year-old Wade won’t turn down so much guaranteed money at this stage of his career.